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Incidents of War - The Fabian Disaster on the Cremera

In 479 BC the Romans found themselves confronted by enemies on several fronts; the Aequi, an Italiote people living up against the foothills of the Apennines about 40 miles or so to the east of Rome, the Volsci, another Italiote people living about 40 miles or so to the south, and the Veientines, the Etruscan inhabitants of Veii, only about a dozen miles or so to the north, who were taking advantage of the situation to conduct occasional raids into Roman territory.

At the time, the Republic probably had no more than 7,000-10,000 men available for military service, most likely some clan warbands and mercenary companies, rather than in the two proto-legions of 3,500-5,000 men found in the works of Livy (c. 60 BC-AD 17) and other ancient writers, who were trying to work out the city’s early history from fragmentary records.  To help carry on the war, the leaders of gens Fabia, or Clan Fabius as we might put it in English, offered to cope with the Veientine threat on their own, thus freeing the Consuls to lead the rest of the army against the Aequi and the Volsci.  Now this may seem surprising, but military operations by a clan were not unknown.  Some years earlier the gens Vitellia had committed itself to a similar mission, to secure a settlement that had been established in Aequian territory.  So, according to the Livian tradition the Fabians mustered an army of 306 family members plus some thousands of clients and slaves, and built a stronghold on the River Cremera, a tributary of the Tiber, close by the Veientine frontier. 

Over the following year or so, the Fabii were able to beat off most Veientine raids.  In 478 BC the Veientines sent an unusually large raiding force against the Romans, but were defeated by the Fabii, who were reinforced by troops led by the Consul Lucius Aemilius Mamercinus.  A truce was concluded, which lasted for a while.  Then the Veientines resumed occasional raids across the frontier, which were defeated by the Fabians, who in turn began raiding Veientine territory, and may have been doing it all along anyway; In effect, a series of cattle raids was elevated into a “war” in traditional memory, which informed later historians.

In 477 or 476, the Veientines set a trap.  By some ruse, they convinced the Fabii that their army had marched away on an expedition.  The Veientines then left a lot of cattle straying around, seemingly unguarded between Veii and the Fabian stronghold.  The Fabians attempted to capture the cattle.  Naturally this dispersed their forces.  As the Fabians were chasing the cattle, the Veientines emerged from their city and attacked.  According to Livy, the Veientines managed to surround the Fabians, but the Fabians attacked in a wedge formation, broke the encirclement, and reached the relative security of a nearby hill.  There the Fabii made their stand, to be overwhelmed as fresh Veientine troops arrived.  Reportedly every single male Fabian died that day but one, Quintus Fabius Vibulanus, who was too young to go to war.

Now there’s a lot of uncertainty about these events.  But then, just about everything in Roman history before about 350 BC is pretty uncertain.  For example, tradition places the defeat of the Fabii on July 18, 477 BC, which is too coincidental; July 18th was the date of the disastrous Roman defeat by the Gauls on the River Allia in 390 or 387 BC and also of the Roman humiliation by the Samnites at the Caudine Forks in 321 BC, so the date was marked as unlucky in the Roman calendar.  Oddly, in his Fasti, an incomplete work on the Roman calendar and religion, the poet Ovid (43 BC-c. AD 18) put the battle on Feb 13, 476 BC, which is perhaps more accurate.

Another problem is the number of Fabii in the battle.  Livy says that 306 adult Fabians perished in the “war” with Veii, along with “thousands” of their clients and followers.  But if that were so, it would seem improbable that little Quintus was the only male family member not present; there ought to have been some dozens of under aged boys, not to mention a few old geezers unfit to take the field.  Livy’s figure for the size of the clan– supposedly 306 – is not out of line if we assume that it includes the clients, hangers on, and slaves of the Fabians, given what we known from tradition about the great families of the early Republic.  The famous Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, later consul and twice dictator, was in his 40s at the time of Cremera, and ploughed his own fields despite being a patrician, like the Fabii, and even two centuries later the patrician Caius Atilius Regulus Serranus, twice Consul, had hands calloused from ploughing, hardly suggesting they commanded thousands of clients and slaves. 

The details of the battle are also rather curious – if the Fabians scattered to capture the cattle, how was it possible for them to be surrounded with no one escaping?  And then there’s that supposed breakout from the encirclement and final stand on the hill, where the Fabians were wiped out – but if that were so, how could the story of what happened be known? Who lived to tell the tale, save the Veintines?  Much of this was probably fabrication, cooked up to make a local disaster on the frontier seem more heroic. 

This not to deny that some sort of disaster overtook the Fabii around 477 or 476 BC.  The consular lists show that from 485 BC until 479 BC three of the Fabii held one or another of the higher offices of state – consul or praetor – each year, an older Quintus and his brothers Kaeso and Marius, all of whom presumably perished on the Cremera.  After 479 BC a Fabius is not found listed as consul until the younger Quintus in 467, and although he held the office twice more, in 465 BC and 459 BC, the family appears on the consular lists only sporadically for some time thereafter.

So something happened, but we will probably never know what.



How Old Was “Little” Quintus?  Livy tells us that Quintus was too young to go to war.  But that doesn’t make sense; Quintus held the first of his three consulships in 467, only a decade after the disaster.  If in 477/476, he had been younger than 16 or so, the age at which a Roman of noble family usually first went on campaign, he would have been rather young to be consul in 467.  We don’t know what the age requirement for the consulship was at the time, but it certainly wasn’t 25 or so; Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, noted above, was 59 when he attained his first consulship, although his younger brother Titus had secured his when he was 42, which is know to have been the official age requirement in later years.  So that’s yet another uncertainty to Livy’s tale.

Evil Omens.  The Romans were quite devoted to signs and omens, and Ovid tells us that when they marched out of the city to assume their duties on the Cremera, the Fabians left by the “right hand arch of the Carmentalis Gate,” and adds, for the benefit of his readers, “Let no one go that way: it is unlucky.”


From the Archives - The Beating of Centurion Lucius Statorius

The culminating campaign of the protracted Second Punic War (218-201 BC) began in 204 BC when, ignoring Hannibal’s presence in Italy, 32-year old Publius Cornelius Scipio (236-183 BC) landed a Roman army in Africa (Tunisia) to begin operations directly against Carthage. Considering support from the local tribes critical to his effort against the Carthaginians, Scipio dispatched his close friend Gaius Laelius (c. 235-c. 158 BC) as an emissary to King Syphax of the Masaesyli, a Berber people living in Numidia (eastern Algeria). Syphax had once been a Roman ally, but some few years earlier had switched allegiance to Carthage, even marrying the daughter of Hasdrubal, a senior Carthaginian general.

We have only fragmentary accounts of this embassy, which took place near the ancient city of Utica (roughly between Carthage and modern Bizerte), where Syphax’s army was camped rather near that of his father-in-law Hasdrubal.

In his Roman History, Livy, writing some 200 years later, in early years of the Empire, tells us:

With Laelius and the legates whom he kept sending to Syphax, Scipio sent some senior centurions of attested courage and discretion garbed as servants and as slaves, that while the legates were in conference, they might roam about the camp in different directions and take note of all entrances and exits, the situation and plan both of the camp as a whole and of its divisions, where the Carthaginians and where the Numidians had their quarters.

They were to discover what was the distance between Hasdrubal's camp and that of King Syphax, also to learn their practice as regards outposts and sentries, whether they were more exposed to an unexpected attack by night or by day. In the course of numerous conferences other men and again others were purposely sent, that a larger number might acquaint themselves with everything.

Livy’s account can be supplemented by the First Century Roman historian, soldier, and public servant Frontinus, who adds some interesting tidbits in his Stratagems, a handbook of tricks, ruses, and tactics.

Scipio Africanus, seizing the opportunity of sending an embassy to Syphax, commanded specially chosen tribunes and centurions to go with Gaius Laelius, disguised as slaves and entrusted with the task of spying out the strength of the king. These men, in order to examine more freely the situation of the camp, purposely let loose a horse and chased it around the greatest part of the fortifications, pretending it was running away.

Certain of the Numidians seemed to recognize one of these men, Lucius Statorius, who had been rather frequently in their camp, and whom, Laelius beat as a slave in order to conceal his rank.

Of course Scipio had no intention of making peace. He used the negotiations to prepare his forces, and then, using the information gathered by his spies, he undertook a series of attacks that routed both the Carthaginian and Numidian armies. Syphax was taken prisoner, and sent to Rome, where he died a few years later. Scipio of course, went on to oversee the defeat of Carthage, earning the cognomen “Africanus.” Gaius Laelius, a man of obscure origins, went on to serve as consul in 190 BC.

As for Centurion Lucius Statorius, some historians have connected him with an officer of the same name who served under Scipio’s father and uncle in Spain in 213 BC, and was for a time an advisor to Syphax when the Numidian was allied with the Romans. While it would seem imprudent for him to pretend to be a slave in Laelius’s entourage nearly a decade later, this would explain why some Numidians thought him familiar. One hopes he was well rewarded for enduring a beating, but we know nothing further about him, as he cannot be connected with any of several persons of the name known from the period.

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